"Nobody hustles me. I don't get hustled. I'm a New Yorker."
My friend was grasping a tattered white envelope and waving it in my face. We were having a beer in a local bar that smelled like the inside of an old tin can. Mike's raspy voice was full of excitement. He was about to collect a minor fortune.
And I had nothing to worry about. Nobody conned him.
"It's like this," Mike said, pausing to wipe the foam off his upper lip. "I was walking down the street, you know, not doing anything, just checkin' out the sights and stuff, and there's this guy on the corner. Real skeezy guy. He's got this ratty-ass beard and he's wearing this old army jacket and he's pickin' through shit in the garbage. Bum stuff. Real typical. Seen it a million times.
"So, I want to walk by him real quick because I know he's gonna be asking for some spare change and I'm sick as hell of bums coming up to me asking for change. They're on every fucking block in New York. Guys friggin' have to get up early so they can get the good corners to stand on."
"Yeah," I say, "have you seen the shirts they're selling in New York now? They say NO SPARE CHANGE on them."
"Now wait a second--would you let me finish?"
"So the guy asks me for change and I'm like 'Sorry--no change' and he looks real apathetic and everything . . ."
"You mean pathetic?"
"Yeah, whatever--so he's got this envelope in his hand and he's trying to say something and he's got a speech impediment or something, I don't know what and he's trying to tell me some shit about the envelope and I'm like 'Come on, come on--I don't have all day' and shit like that. So he's like 'I found this envelope and there's this reward for it.' Of course he didn't say it as clear as that--I had to kind of bleed it out of him. So here's this envelope."
Mike waved the envelope in front of my face again and in a pencil scrawl on the front were the words "If found, call Dr. Murray Kaplan. Reward." There was also a phone number.
"Did you open it?" I asked.
"No, wait a second--this gets interesting 'cause the guy tells me he's been trying to call this doctor whose envelope it is and the doctor keeps hanging up on him because he thinks he's drunk or some shit 'cause he's got the speech impediment. So he's like 'Can you call for me?' So I say 'Sure, what the hell. Don't have anything better to do.' So we walk over to this phone booth, you see, and I call up this doctor guy and he answers the phone."
"He answers his own phones?"
"Doesn't he have a receptionist?"
"It was after office hours."
"So he picks up the phone, right? And he's like 'What do you want?' And I'm like 'There's this dude over here who found this envelope' and so forth. So the doctor goes 'Hey! Great! I didn't know that was what he wanted.' There's a $200 reward for that envelope--it's got a bunch of valuable stamps in it.' And he's like 'Why don't you come over to my office, give me the stamps, and I'll get you the reward.' And me, being the nice guy I am, I say 'Well, this guy found it--so he should get the reward.' And he's like 'Well, I'd really much rather deal with you than this guy, so can you do it?' And I'm like 'Look--the guy could use it a lot more than me.' And so he says 'I'll tell you what--how much money do you have on you?' And I say 'I don't know. Twenty or 30 bucks?' And he says 'I'll tell you what--why don't you give him the 30 bucks? And you can come by my office and I'll give you the reward.' And I say 'Cool. That's great.' So everything works out. I give the bum the 30 bucks. He's happy. And he gives me the envelope."
"Did you get the money?"
"Not yet--he wants me to come by the office today. I wanted you to take me because I don't know where it is."
"Sure. Do I get part of the reward?"
We got into my car and drove toward the address of the doctor's office on South Wabash.
"Why haven't you opened the envelope?" I asked.
"That's tacky," Mike responded. "What if he sees the envelope's open. Then it'll look like I stole the shit."
I shrugged and drove on.
"Wait a minute. This can't be it."
I continued to drive down Wabash and kept on circling the block.
"Are you sure that's the right address?"
"Yeah, that's it."
But standing there, where there should have been a doctor's office, was a cheesy Polynesian restaurant. Closed.
Infuriated, Mike the New Yorker ripped open the envelope and shook out a small square of four 25-cent stamps.
"Welcome to Chicago," I said.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Bruce Powell.